Two editorial announcements today:
First, please welcome Ansley Kelley, who is taking over as a regular contributor for Meg Schmidt. Ansley is a 2016 graduate currently living in Buffalo, New York. See her bio below for more details.
Second, our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.
Dear the post calvin,
I’ll spare you the cliché question “How do I make time in my day for devotions or moments with God?” I know that’s hard for everyone. Well, most people. Some of you are very righteous, I suspect. My real problem is that even when I do discipline myself and set aside time, the material available never satisfies me. In short: I hate devotionals. They’re cheesy, saccharine, leave a bitter taste in my mouth, and all the other unpleasant food metaphors you can think of. Do you have any suggestions for a good devotional book that doesn’t make me gag? I’m looking for deep cuts here. I know Buechner and Lewis and Chambers. Need something fresh and modern and—sorry to bring in politics here—liberal. I’m open to non-book stuff too. What fulfilling practices do you have?
Indeed, the world of Christian devotion is wrought with nauseatingly sentimental content that can leave us wondering if our faith is simply a feel-good meditation practice rooted in positive thinking and self-love. There is little to distinguish many modern devotionals from the inspirational coffee mugs found in the local boho gift shop. I understand your search for rigor and depth, and applaud you for seeking a rich devotional practice—indeed, it is one of the most important components of a maturing faith.
That said, and before we get to specific content recommendations (of which, blessedly, there are many) I think it is appropriate to think for a moment about the positioning of our minds and hearts when we approach our time of study, reflection, and prayer. What are devotions and how should we think about them? Simply put, devotions are intentional moments taken to connect with God. For many they involve prayer and some kind of reading, but can take many shapes and forms. My parents do their devotions first thing every morning for an hour, but I find that many of my most fulfilling moments with God have been at the top of mountains, with skis on my feet and worship music coming through my headphones. Isn’t it lovely that He meets us where we are?
That to me seems to be the most important preface to more specific recommendations: He meets us where we are. Though you may be at a place in your Christian journey that thirsts for theological heft, I think it important to remember that many a sinner has found God in the pages of devotionals that you and I would find (to use your term) saccharine. Woe to us if we value an intellectually impressive Christianity over the simple beauty of the ample grace and multiple avenues with which God extends salvation. Any connection with God is both valid and beautiful, and we are no better if we dig into Chambers than we are if we turn the pages of Jesus Calling. And while I understand the desire to find devotional content that endorses our current viewpoints, I would offer the gentle reminder that the outworking of our devotions ought to influence our political activities, and not the other way around.
And so, multiple prefaces aside, let’s speak practically. In seasons of content frustration, the first thing I return to is the Biblical text itself. I have used one year bibles in multiple translations and layouts including the NIV and The Message to great effect, with the added bonus that these formats offer built-in accountability with their scheduled readings. Side note: The Message even gives you a catch up day every week, which feels like a small mercy for those of us who are habitually depraved. I was also recently gifted a chronological study Bible that has opened the text for me both in terms of timelines and annotations that provide contextual and theological commentary.
If you’re set on infusing additional written content, you might try pairing your favorite scholars with the Biblical text itself. For example, I have recently been reading through N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and have enjoyed the practice of opening my Bible beside me while I read so that I can fully appreciate his citations. This can turn into a rich devotional time that feels something like touring the Bible under the guidance of a brilliant theologian. I have applied this same practice in the past, always with the same positive result.
In seasons of more hurry, or on days that have me in the work parking lot frantically seeking a quick hit of spiritual enlightenment, I have happily used the YouVersion Bible app with its plethora of devotionals and convenient verse-of-the-day features. The app also tracks your daily and weekly visits and encourages you to establish a “streak” of reading days. This is a mostly convicting feature, but one that you may find useful if you’re into the whole “facing your iniquities” mode of devotion.
Finally, I will add that journaling has by far been the most consistent and enriching component of my devotional practice. I won’t say that I journal every day, but it is a rare week that I don’t pry open the leather tome to write a prayer or reflection. Occasionally I will take the time to read through my entries or to revisit a particular season. Each time I do this I am moved by the record of God’s hand in my life, and am often spurred towards greater devotion. How easily we forget all that he has done! Journalling keeps the very real, very present nature of God at the forefront of my practice, and helps me to avoid shallow intellectualism that lacks authentic application. If you don’t journal, I would encourage you to try it.
Happily, there are a myriad of ways to connect with God through devotions, and certainly I have only touched on a few, but I think that the most important thing to remember is that any meeting with God is a good one, and that for every one step we take towards Him, he takes a hundred in return. Take a walk in the woods. Maybe take your Bible. Read Lewis until midnight. Journal in the coffee shop. Single steps on the long journey.